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26 November 2009 Edition

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Building on the MacBride Principles

Leading international statesperson Seán MacBride

Leading international statesperson Seán MacBride

25 YEARS ON: The struggle for fair employment in the Six Counties


THIS MONTH marks 25 years since the advent of the MacBride Principles for Fair Employment. An Phoblacht looks back at the past history and present significance of the MacBride Principles in the battle to tackle job discrimination and promote socio-economic equality in the North.

IN November 1984, Dr Seán MacBride SC was a leading international statesperson. MacBride was the holder of the Nobel Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize and the US Congressional Medal for Justice. A former Foreign Minister for Ireland, past-Assistant Secretary General to the United Nations, and founder of Amnesty International, he was also Chief of Staff of the IRA in the 1930s.
The nine principles named after him in 1984 collectively became one of the most effective anti-discrimination campaigns undertaken since the creation of the Six-County state. And during the past 25 years the MacBride campaign has kept the issue of job discrimination and socio-economic equality at the centre of the political agenda.

Equality was at the core of the injustices targeted by the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s. The violent response of the British state and ‘big house unionism’ to the modest demands of the civil rights marchers – culminating in the slaughter on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 – finally forced that movement off the streets.
Following the suspension of Stormont’s unionist one-party rule in 1972 – under the combined weight of nationalist resistance and international condemnation – British direct-rule ministers were forced to look at ways of addressing the most visible and indefensible aspects of inequality and injustice in the North.
In 1973, a British Government working group, under the chair of British Conservative William Van Straubenzee – in the report which carried his name – concluded that equality of opportunity should be clearly visible in a workforce which, by and large, reflects the denominational ratios in the community as a whole.
Crucially, Van Straubenzee’s report also advocated the introduction of ‘affirmative action’, calling for active efforts to right the wrongs of discrimination. Essentially, the report concluded that tough anti-discrimination measures were, of themselves, not enough and that other measures to positively promote equality were required.
The British Government’s response to the report – heavily influenced by the Six-County unionist Civil Service – set the pattern for its future approach to issues of economic equality and fair employment by effectively ignoring Van Straubenzee’s key recommendations.
What emerged after three years was the misleadingly named Fair Employment Act 1976, establishing the Fair Employment Agency (FEA) under the chair of the Alliance Party’s Bob Cooper.
Within a short time, the ineffectiveness of the FEA became apparent. A derisory budget and powerless status, matched by Cooper’s compliance with the agenda of the Civil Service and Northern Ireland Office (NIO), contributed to the resignation of prominent civil rights activist and senior trade union nominee Inez McCormack from the agency’s board.
As the armed conflict deepened on the streets, fewer and fewer people had the time or the inclination to focus on the laborious but deeply influential examination of job discrimination in the North. One of those who did was Fr. Brian Brady, a priest who taught on the Falls Road and who traced his civil rights campaigning back to the 1960s.
With the Hunger Strike ensuing in Long Kesh in July 1981, Fr. Brady attended a key United States Congressional hearing in Washington – largely instigated through Fr. Seán McManus’s Irish National Caucus (INC) lobby – to testify about the factual realities of discrimination in the North. Relying in part on high-grade statistical information that was privately produced by Oliver Kearney and others, Brady painted a devastating picture of life in the North.
The INC’s aim was to campaign against major US Government defence contracts being awarded to Shorts Brothers in light of the east Belfast company’s appalling record of job discrimination. The efforts failed, mainly because John Hume’s SDLP – supported by the British and Irish governments, and with an entrée into conservative Irish-American politics – argued that investment should be encouraged without conditionality or qualification, regardless of the implications for entrenching systemic patterns of discrimination.
Whilst unsuccessful, the INC’s efforts raised the international profile of structural inequality in the Six Counties.
Just three years later, the Irish-American lobby in Washington and in New York had developed sufficient strength to build the basis for what became the MacBride Principles.
With the high-profile campaigning zeal of Fr. McManus in the INC, and the lawyerly ethical investment ‘know-how’ of Pat Doherty, based in the New York City Comptroller’s Office, the MacBride Principles took shape as a potentially powerful tool.
The four sponsors of the MacBride Principles were Seán MacBride, Inez McCormack, Fr. Brian Brady, and Protestant peace and justice campaigner and Independent member of the Seanad, Dr John Robb.
Initially, the proposal to make US investments in the North conditional upon fair employment practices by using the legislative power of state and city legislatures 3,000 miles away came in ‘under the radar’ in Ireland.
However, within six months, the stakes began to rise. A fact-finding visit to Ireland by Pat Doherty and his boss, Comptroller Harrison Goldin, which was sponsored by Fr McManus’s INC and overseen by Rita Mullen, prompted the NIO to urgently announce a face-saving ‘review’ of fair employment practices in the North – particularly the Civil Service.
These events, in mid-1985, coincided with the passing of the first MacBride resolution in Massachussetts State Assembly – addressed by Inez McCormack – and the formation of the Fair Employment Trust by Oliver Kearney and others to promote the MacBride Principles from Ireland
Soon battle lines were being drawn among Northern nationalists.
The SDLP leadership – heavily influenced by NIO political intelligence officials  – opposed MacBride, quietly at first but soon publicly. By contrast, the increasingly angry reaction of the British Government confirmed for Sinn Féin that the principles’ modest demands were, in fact, their real deadliness.
In the South, opposition Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey backed the principles, whilst his opposite number, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald presided over Irish diplomats overtly attacking MacBride alongside their British Embassy counterparts in Washington. The attitude of most Irish officials slowly began to thaw when Haughey became Taoiseach in February 1987.
Meanwhile, in England, the opposition Labour Party, under Westminster spokespersons Peter Archer QC and Kevin McNamara, became firm advocates of the principles, while a wide range of trade union and Irish groups embraced the campaign. In the United States, the Irish-American family came together in an unprecedented display of organisational unity behind MacBride.
The British reaction was to denounce those supporting MacBride as ‘IRA fellow-travellers’ and subversives. They spread the lie that MacBride meant sacking Protestants and replacing them with Catholics. British agents systematically demonised those engaged in the peaceful and non-violent pursuit of MacBride because the logical outworking of tackling inequality was at least as destabilising for the British status quo as the continuing conflict.
The SDLP leadership’s approach was to criticise MacBride proponents as being ‘naïve on the economy’ and ‘ideologically driven’, with false scare-mongering that implementing MacBride would ‘damage progress’ by imposing stringent equality measures as the basis for economic development.
These self-serving attitudes were addressed head-on in the October 1988 edition of IRIS  – The Republican Magazine by the sagely comments of columnist Eamonn McGrory – and their bearing today is equally as valid for republicans in analysing the Six-County economy:
“Discrimination is not simply a Catholic issue nor is it the property of any political party. It is a campaign which all socialists and democrats can, should and must support. It will never go away until it is eradicated. But if it is once more put into hibernation it will only be because those who have the political power and influence to rouse support nationally and internationally in support of equality either lacked the political will to do so or decided that the pursuit of equality rather ran contrary to other political interests.”
Despite the substantial opposition of the British Government’s political and intelligence agencies across the US, a total of 18 states and 40 cities subsequently endorsed the MacBride campaign
This counter-pressure on the British forced the introduction of a new anti-discrimination Fair Employment Act in 1989, including the replacement of the discredited Fair Employment Agency. Despite strenuous efforts calling for ‘patience’ and ‘time’, the British were soon faced with new pro-MacBride offensives.
In the US, the MacBride Principles were backed by future President Bill Clinton, and in the European Parliament they were endorsed by MEPs who also ordered a major investigation into job discrimination and economic inequality in the North in the early 1990s.
And while the new legislation had been prompted by the obscene levels of structural anti-Catholic discrimination, the pressure for a robust rights-based challenge to economic inequality had positive practical effects for all sections of the community, including unionists and Protestants.
The MacBride momentum set the scene for the development of the equality agenda that became central to the Irish Peace Process and Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Crucially, the Agreement moved the issues further than ever before by demanding not just enhanced anti-discrimination law but by creating a ground-breaking positive legal duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity in the discharge of all functions. This became Section 75(1) of the NI Act 1998. It extended the pro-equality ambit beyond mere religious or political inequalities to include previously voiceless and marginalised sectors, including those of different sexual orientation and race. It has also been one of the key points of resistance by negative British and unionist elements in the Six Counties over the past decade  – principally because it has such potential to be a key tool for change.
The Agreement, and the subsequent Joint Declaration in 2003, contained explicit requirements for the eradication by the British Government of the ‘unemployment differential’. This consistently showed that, throughout 30 years of conflict, Catholics were at least twice as likely as Protestants to be unemployed. Objective analysts continually highlighted that this reflected structural realities of direct and indirect discrimination in the Six Counties.
It is a sobering fact that, in September 2009, Sinn Féin MLA Carál Ní Chuilín revealed that the unemployment differential has once again been rising faster and disproportionately under the economic downturn this year – currently approaching the historic 2:1 Catholic/Protestant unemployment ratio. This reinforces that the inequality problem is structural – not coincidental.
The reality is that Catholics remain considerably worse off on all socio-economic statistical indicators, including economic inactivity, and that the top 20 most deprived council wards remain in either Derry, west Belfast or north Belfast. While these wards are mainly working-class Catholic, they also include areas of severe working-class Protestant deprivation – including in west Belfast.
By continually refusing to positively tackle deprivation on the basis of objective need, the British Government and ‘big house unionism’ has not only perpetuated structura anti-Catholic inequalities but also deserted large sections of the Protestant working class.
Tackling structurally sectarian inequalities in the Six Counties – on the basis of objective need – is therefore directly related to tackling class divisions across political boundaries and is the first step in building the foundation for a better future based on equality for all. Taking all these facts together, it is clear that the spirit of MacBride still has work to do.
Following the historic agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin which saw the political institutions established in May 2007, a Programme for Government was agreed with a strong policy commitment to equality and social justice through government actions, particularly the application of government procurement processes.
However, the British system of permanent government and unionist leadership – conditioned by decades of resistance to the equality agenda – continues to obstruct the implementation of those equality demands on the ground. In particular, Invest NI, charged with attracting new investment to the North, continues to ignore any responsibility or duty to address practically its requirement to promote equality of opportunity in terms of regional investment discrimination.
The Good Friday Agreement has clearly changed the political context and created a new framework in which equality can be effectively achieved. But full implementation has yet to be realised, and entrenched resistance from within the political system must continue to be a key rallying point in the ongoing fight for socio-economic equality and an end to discrimination in the Six Counties.


The MacBride principles


  1. Increasing the representation of individuals from under-represented religious groups in the workforce including managerial, supervisory, administrative, clerical and technical jobs.
  2. Adequate security for the protection of minority employees both at the workplace and while traveling to and from work.
  3. The banning of provocative religious or political emblems at the workplace.
  4. All job openings should be publicity advertised and special recruitment efforts should be made to attract applicants from under-represented religious groups.
  5. Lay-off, recall, and termination procedures should not in practice favor particular religious groupings.
  6. The abolition of job reservations, apprenticeship restrictions and differential employment criteria, which discriminate on the basis of religious or ethnic origin.
  7. The development of training programs that will prepare substantial numbers of current minority employees for skilled jobs, including the expansion of existing programs and the creation of new programs to train, upgrade, and improve the skills of minority employees.
  8. The establishment of procedures to assess, identify, and actively recruit minority employees with the potential for further advancement.
  9. The appointment of a senior management staff member to oversee the company’s affirmative action efforts and the setting up of timetables to carry out affirmative action principles.
• Catholics were at least twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestants

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